Hampshire Constabulary coordinated a week of action last week (May 17 – May 23) to tackle county lines drug dealing and the associated exploitation of vulnerable people.
‘County lines’ is a term used to describe organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs out of bigger cities into smaller towns in the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’.
They exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store drugs and money, and often use coercion, intimidation, violence and weapons.
As part of the week of action, Neighbourhood Policing Teams engaged with local residents in order to share information about county lines drug dealing in the area, to reassure, and to raise awareness of child criminal exploitation and how to spot it.
Child criminal exploitation
Officers identified and safeguarded 17 children as vulnerable to county lines exploitation.
The British Transport Police ran a number of successful operations in Southampton, Portsmouth, Basingstoke and the New Forest to protect children and vulnerable adults who are often exploited by gangs into selling or moving drugs.
Efforts are made to safeguard any vulnerable or exploited person arrested as part of County Lines, referring them to services built to encourage and support the person away from criminal activity.
A focus for us is identifying these children and giving them the support they need to break away from gangs who have groomed them.
Hampshire Constabulary’s led for drug-related harm, Detective Superintendent, Nick Plummer, said: “No one really knows how many young people across the country are being forced to take part and support County Lines activity. Children without criminal records – known as ‘clean skins’ – are preferred because they are less likely to be known to police. However, children with criminal records are also vulnerable to exploitation from gangs who use them to operate their business all over the country.
“We are often involved in missing person reports of young people who have left their place of residence in another county and later been found in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, often carrying drugs or cash which results in us having to arrest the young person. However this is also an opportunity for us get them the support they need and refer them to appropriate services. We are continually assessing the threat, risk and impact on the young person in these challenging situations. We have to consider the ongoing risk to them from the gang who controls them, as well as rival gangs, but this is an opportunity for us to put in place safeguarding measures and support that ensures they are safe from harm.”
Operations throughout the week was the result of a coordinated effort by your local Neighbourhood Policing Teams under Operation Fortress, Investigation Teams, Hampshire’s County Lines Team under Operation Monument and High Harm Teams, working in partnership with the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit (SEROCU), British Transport Police to dismantle county lines networks together and protect people who need our help.
Detective Inspector Lee Newman, County Lines regional co-ordinator for the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit, said: “We’ve provided support to forces with a range of specialist skills and co-ordinated activity to ensure we work together to identify and disrupt serious offenders causing the most harm in our communities.
“County Lines drug dealing has a significant impact upon communities and involves the exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people in society, including children.
“We’re committed to further developing our understanding of the methods used by organised criminals responsible for County Lines criminality to ensure we can continue to target them, while working closely with our partners to support victims.”
Last week’s operation saw officers target 52 cuckooed addresses and stop checked seven vehicles for organised crime usage.
A further seven pre-planned warrants were executed at addresses believed to be used in county lines activity.
‘Cuckooing’ is the term used for when drug dealers use violence, exploitation and intimidation to take over the home of a vulnerable person in order to use it as a base for drug dealing. A vulnerable person might be someone with a dependency on drugs or is suffering from mental ill health or substance misuse.
Officers spoke to 38 adults considered vulnerable and potentially at risk of being exploited by dealers and signposted them to appropriate support agencies who can help them, therefore cutting off the dealers from a base to deal.
A significant amount of intelligence has also been gathered through this week of action helping to inform future assessment of threat, risk and harm in our communities from organised crime networks.
Results from our activities included recovery and seizure of the following:
• £4,140 worth of heroin
• £50k worth of cannabis
• 25 MDMA tabs
• £7,380 POCA / Cash recovered
• 10 weapons were recovered: 7 knives, 1 scissor blade, 1 catapult, 1 knuckleduster
• 38 mobile phones
• Crack and cocaine was also recovered (not yet quantified)
The vast majority of the arrests were for adult men; we arrested 26 men over the age of 18, three boys and four adult women.
During the week of action 10 County Lines and organised crime networks were disrupted.
Detective Superintendent, Nick Plummer, said: “The objective of this intensification week was to disrupt county lines networks and safeguarding exploited children and the vulnerable.
“County Lines and local drug networks cause misery for vulnerable young people and our communities and it is absolutely right that we continue putting significant effort into identifying those involved in supply and exploitation for their own gain.
“There is this strong link between drugs and violence, and we have made significant efforts to understand the impact of those involved in County Lines and other crime that spills into our neighbourhoods.
“Furthermore, we have been supporting and sharing BTP and The Children’s Society’s #LookCloser awareness campaign to encourage professionals and the public to ‘Look Closer’ for signs that a child may be at risk of criminal exploitation.
“It is aimed at anyone who may encounter children in their daily lives, including service sector employees and transport workers, as public spaces are often where exploited children are most visible.
“Key signs of exploitation include children travelling alone, particularly during school hours, late at night or on a regular basis. They may also look lost or in unfamiliar surroundings and may be carrying large amounts of money.
“Criminals groom children through manipulation, with drugs and alcohol or promises of wealth and status. Any child, in any community, can be vulnerable but they may be too scared to raise concerns and many do not see themselves as victims because they have been manipulated.
“They may not look or act like we expect a victim should and may for instance be angry and aggressive as these are common responses to trauma.
“We must therefore look beyond the obvious to see they need help.
“This is not an issue we can tackle alone. Local agencies, charities, partners, schools, parents all need to help us protect the most vulnerable in our communities.”
“The collaborative work between Hampshire Constabulary and our partners in relation to County Lines and the associated risks are always ongoing, but this coordinated week of action helps to dismantle drug networks across borders together and bring to justice those running these toxic drug networks that bring violence and abuse to our streets.”
Just last week a man from Reading was jailed for 11 and a half years for being part of a County Lines conspiracy to supply Class A drugs in Basingstoke. It was a long and complex investigation but we were able to secure a conviction that meant he would no longer be able to operate the network which brought misery to a number of vulnerable people.
These investigations are happening all the time and we will ensure we continue to target those who bring the most harm to communities and exploit the most vulnerable in our society.
If you notice suspicious activity or have information about drug dealing you can make a report on our website, call 101 – always call 999 in an emergency.